ZBA Grants Zoning Relief to BHA Buildings on West Newton and Rutland Streets

Townhouses owned by the Boston Housing Authority on West Newton and Rutland streets are about to get a major life safety makeover.

At the Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on Oct. 16, architect Cliff Boehmer said they are proposing to add fire protection, including fire alarms to 27 buildings on West Newton and Rutland streets in the South End. They are also looking to make the entire complex handicap compliant.

Though these cases were all filed separately by building, the ZBA decided to hear them as one project and looked at the issues of building code relief and the issue of the project being in the Groundwater Conservation Overlay District (GCOD).

BHA Attorney Dean Papademetriou said that these five clusters of five buildings each, along with two others, have not been properly kept up to date due to lack of funding. He said that a few of the units are currently uninhabitable, but there is a new source of funds from the federal government, and in conjunction with community development corporation Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion (IBA), these units can be renovated. “It’s an exciting opportunity for us to be able to renovate these properties, have them fully occupied, and preserve affordable housing recourse in the central part of Boston,” Papademetriou said. He added that the BHA is supporting the project and looking forward to working with IBA.

Papademetriou also said that there was a “substantial community process” with Boston Housing residents and with the community.

Boehmer said that each of the five clusters already shares domestic water service, as well as sewer lines, and they are proposing to retain the clusters and provide fire service to each of the buildings. The GCOD variance is triggered “by the extent of the renovation,” he said, since they are proposing a large infiltration system along the entire back of the building and into the individual ground-water infiltration systems at the Rutland buildings.

“The building code variances that we’re proposing are to be able to share in the same way that the domestic water services are shared and want to share those fire services across those clusters of buildings,” Boehmer said.

Doug Anderson of Commercial Construction Consulting said that each building has its own legal occupancy, and if the fire walls were not there, this variance would not be needed.

He said that typically, each building would require its own fire service and water and sewage, but they agreed to approach the fire service the same way that the domestic water service is. The fact that the fire walls are there and they are separate buildings means that they are not allowed to share this under the building code and that’s why the variance was triggered.

The domestic water-line runs through the party walls. Anderson said that the penetration of the walls and the sharing of the systems is the issue with the code.

Architect and ZBA member  Anthony Pisani made a motion to grant the building code relief for two reasons: “the buildings are being substantially upgraded to provide major protection for life safety,” he said, and “the relief requested is really De Minimis in the following sense: it’s simply the penetration through the walls.”

However, it still comes down to the details, he said, and the motion was approved with the proviso that the code consultant submit his report to the board. The proposal has been reviewed by Boston Water and Sewer, as well as the fire department, and they support this approach.

As far as the GCOD variance goes, Christian Simonelli from the Boston Groundwater Trust said that they do have the Boston Water and Sewer Commission approval letters for 62, 64, and 79 Rutland St., as well as 54-102 West Newton St., which have been signed off on by their engineers.

The Board took public comment regarding the GCOD portion, and among the support were City Councilors Kim Janey, Ed Flynn, and Michelle Wu, as well as Fasia Sharif from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services and the Carpenter’s Union.

A neighbor on Rutland Street asked the Board to delay their decision until the project proponents “truly do what they say they were going to do,” which is meet with them and show them exactly what it is they are doing. She felt that the lines of communication had not been open enough with the abutters and the community, and really wants to be informed of what is going on before they proceed.

Nina Schwarzschild of IBA responded by saying there was an initial meeting as well as additional meetings with the residents of BHA. She said there were also meetings to talk about construction management, and that “we are at a very crucial moment going through this process.” She said that the BHA is at risk of losing the federal funding if they don’t move forward with this process, and that they will set up lines of communication as well as a contact person for abutters.

The Board made a motion to approve the rest of the project with the proviso that the proponents make continued, structured efforts to communicate with the neighbors. The motion was approved.

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